at I Space, through April 16

At first it brings a smile to one’s face, this collection of slightly goofy-looking contraptions that recall Rube Goldberg: a giant rotating rod with “feet” at each end that extend and retract, a long cluster of cables and wires that slowly crawls around the room, and several other equally indescribable constructions, all festooned with exposed wires and blinking lights. But it’s soon evident that this installation by William Smith, which fills a small room at I Space, a River North gallery operated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is about more than humor.

One begins to notice that diverse parts of the work strangely resemble each other in form or function and that one movement causes another–rotating wheels collide, and that sends them shooting away from each other. The specific forms of each machine start to seem less important than the operational principles underlying it, and the mental image the viewer is left with is completely unlike the images that linger after viewing more conventional sculpture. In this installation’s world there are no fixed shapes–no marble, no metal, not even implied flesh. There are only multiple interconnections and unpredictable movements. Smith may use machines, but he says he wants to make work that “gets away from being just a machine,” that somehow reflects the way nature works.

The installation is composed of three elements, each with many parts. The large rod at the room’s center is mounted on an axle suspended from the ceiling by wires and turns within a vertical plane. At each end are 12 “feet,” 6 with electrical contacts at their ends that touch a metal plate on the floor as the rod turns, causing sparks and adding an oddly threatening element. Shortly after touching the plate, the feet, controlled by a motor, shift from being extended to being perpendicular to the rod; simultaneously the feet at the rod’s other end move from a perpendicular to an extended position.

Watching this rod spin for a while, one notices that its speed always picks up just after the feet change positions, accelerating when one set of feet extends more than the other. This change in position causes a shift in the rod’s center of gravity and causes it to turn.

The principle of one kind of motion causing another is echoed in the other two parts of the installation. In one, a length of twine is looped around three points in the ceiling to form a triangle, and a motor at one of the points draws the twine around the points. That pulls a cluster of cables hanging from the triangle around the room. At the end of the cables are spokes that turn as they’re dragged along the floor and six two-toed feet that follow behind. Attached to the middle of the cables, near eye level, is a delicate structure that looks like the torso of a bird skeleton; every so often its ribs snap open and shut on one side like a trap, a slight hint of violence. I didn’t guess it, but this irregular, unpredictable movement comes from cables that are turned by the spokes on the floor, that “coil up and act like springs,” according to Smith. He adds that the opening and closing releases tension “like a fault line builds up pressures and releases” in an earthquake.

The third part of the installation consists of two spinning wheels with tiny motors at their centers suspended from the ceiling by a complex structure of movable wires; nearby little lights signal when the motors are receiving power. The wheels hang close to each other and frequently bump together. I found it almost mesmerizing to watch them collide, sometimes springing back with great force, other times barely shifting course. There’s no way to predict which will happen; presumably tiny variations in the wheels’ rubber rims account for part of this. What we’re seeing is chaos theory in action–minuscule changes in the causes of natural phenomena and large variations in their effects.

The movement of the other elements in the work is similarly unpredictable, a fascinating mixture of repetition and chaos. Friction makes the portion that crawls along the floor advance in stops and starts, and the pattern of the sparks made on the floor plate by the rotating rod’s feet continually changes. The inability to predict these events is a bit unsettling.

If unpredictability is one of Smith’s main organizational principles, another is connectedness. Observed phenomena can be seen to cause others, making each element part of an interdependent unity. Four brushes mounted on the axle spin with the rotating rod, briefly touching thin metal bands and sparking at the moment when the feet change position; one realizes these sparks make visible the flow of electrical energy that powers the motor that moves the feet.

Nature in its many aspects is Smith’s key inspiration. The flapping of a bird’s wings, an animal’s gait, the patterns of waves on water, all mix repetition and variation as Smith’s work does. Many of Smith’s structures also evoke animal forms–feathers, delicate feet, skeletons. Each form is a dense network of interlaced parts, and it’s the interlacing rather than the individual threads that captures the viewer’s attention, leading the mind’s eye toward the space between the strands or toward their connections.

Similarly, the work’s transparent presentation of cause and effect mirrors nature’s interdependencies. If Smith has modeled nature, it is not a nature of objects to be appreciated in picture-book isolation, but an ecological world.

Smith, 32, lives in downstate Lebanon, in the same region where he was born and raised. When he was very young an uncle took him on forays into the woods; he soon spent a lot of time there on his own, observing animals, returning to visit the same owls. He also had a keen curiosity about how things work and would take mechanical things apart. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology, he worked in a research lab for a few years, but was disturbed by the results of “wasteful” animal experimentation. He’d drawn since childhood and enrolled as a ceramist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he received an MFA.

Smith hopes that by using “nature as a template, by knowing how it works and applying it to something you build, you may be able to get to the essence of nature. I’d like to make something that you would think of as an animal, or a lightning storm, or a waterfall, that when you look at it you might think of all nature when you see it, that gives off an aura rather than [being] just an object.”

Measured against such worthy goals, the present installation isn’t completely successful. The central rod, wonderful as it is, seems a bit too fixed and regular, especially given its central position. Yet it’s amazing how well the piece does succeed.

After looking at each part for a while, I started to notice the various shadows, some moving, some still, that the work casts on the gallery’s cream-colored walls. (Smith arranged the lighting himself.) Just as the perceived connections between things leap beyond imagery, the shadows attract the viewer’s attention away from solid things and toward, well, their “aura.” Some elements make sounds that also move the viewer away from the physical. At two of the points in the triangle of twine there are fanlike structures whose blades look like feathers (they’re actually made of the wire-mesh corner bead used in drywalling). The fans turn and brush against tiny wires, making a soft rustling sound that recalls the sound of wind. The shadows, the sounds, the interconnections, the delicate, skeletonlike insubstantiality of the forms, all combine to suggest that the essence of things is not in their solid physical natures, but in how they interconnect–and in the gentle, ineffable poetry of the shadows and the echoes they leave behind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.